What Is the Motte and Bailey Fallacy? | Definition & Examples

Reasoning updated on  March 15, 2024 6 min read

The motte and bailey fallacy involves equating a controversial claim with one that is easy to defend and strategically shifting between these two positions in a misleading way.

This strategy is considered dishonest because the speaker strategically confuses the audience about their true position.

Motte and bailey fallacy example
A politician asserts the urgent need for drastic measures to combat climate change, such as banning fossil fuels and implementing severe taxes on carbon emissions. When faced with criticism or skepticism about the economic feasibility or societal impact of such measures, the politician retreats to the safer position of advocating for incremental changes, such as improving energy efficiency and investing in green technologies.

In this example of a motte and bailey fallacy, the extreme position (the bailey) advocates for sweeping changes to address climate change, while the moderate position (the motte) emphasizes more achievable and less controversial goals. This allows a person to shield a controversial stance from criticism and avoid defending it directly.

Motte and bailey fallacies are often found in political, academic, and philosophical debates, among other contexts.

What is the motte and bailey fallacy?

The motte and bailey fallacy occurs when a person presents a controversial claim (“bailey”) but, upon facing opposition, retreats to a different, more easily defensible position (“motte”). After defending the uncontroversial position, the speaker often reasserts the more contentious claim, as if it has been proven by the argument for the milder claim.

The motte and bailey fallacy is an informal fallacy because the error lies in the content of the argument rather than its form.

Because the motte and bailey fallacy relies on distraction as a persuasive technique, it can be classified as a fallacy of relevance.

It can also be considered a fallacy of ambiguity, a category of errors that involve misleading an audience by using ambiguous language or shifting definitions.

In the case of the motte and bailey fallacy, the ambiguity arises from a type of equivocation, with the speaker conflating two different positions and treating them as equivalent when they are not.

It shares similarities with the equivocation fallacy, but there is a difference:

  • Equivocation fallacy: Uses a term or phrase with multiple meanings ambiguously within an argument, making it unclear which meaning applies at different points
  • Motte and bailey fallacy: Relies on the ambiguity between two different claims or positions rather than the confusing use of a single term or phrase

Motte and bailey fallacy origin

The logical fallacy is named after a defensive feature of medieval castles comprising a hilltop fort, or “motte,” and an enclosed courtyard, or “bailey.” This layout allowed defenders of the castle to fall back to the motte for stronger defense, analogous to the tactic of shifting to an easily defensible position in the motte and bailey fallacy.

Motte and bailey fallacy examples

Examples of the motte and bailey fallacy often arise in public debates, political discourse, and social media discussions, where complex issues are sometimes simplified or misrepresented.

Motte and bailey fallacy example in politics

A politician is challenged by an opponent during a campaign debate.

Controversial claim (“bailey”)
“Free speech laws should protect all forms of speech, including hate speech, because freedom of expression is an essential human right.”

Criticism
“You’re enabling dangerous hate speech by classifying it as a protected form of expression. That’s an indefensible position.”

Uncontroversial claim (“motte”)
“What I’m really saying is that the right to free speech is a fundamental part of our democracy. We must protect free speech at all costs to preserve our freedoms.”

In this example of a motte and bailey fallacy, the speaker initially makes a controversial claim (the bailey) that all forms of speech, including hate speech, should be protected under free speech laws. This position is challenging to defend because of the potential harm hate speech can cause.

When faced with criticism, the speaker retreats to a more general and defensible position (the motte) by emphasizing the importance of protecting free speech as a fundamental right, thus sidestepping the specific and contentious issue of hate speech. The fallacy lies in the shift between these two positions, using the defensible claim to tacitly support the more controversial claim without directly addressing the criticisms against it.

The motte and bailey fallacy often appears in the media, especially in venues such as talk shows and news programs that feature debates on political and social issues. Speakers might introduce bold or controversial views on sensitive subjects, yet maintain an appearance of reasonableness by retreating to more defensible positions when pressed.

This tactic can hinder meaningful discussion and often results in confusion about the speaker's actual stance.

Motte and bailey fallacy example in media

The host of a controversial evening talk show presents an extreme view on immigration and is challenged by a guest.

Controversial claim (“bailey”)
“It’s undeniable that our nation is being overrun by criminal elements, endangering the safety and security of our citizens. We must take immediate and decisive action to end immigration.”

Criticism
“Characterizing immigrants as criminals is misleading and inflammatory. Many immigrants are hardworking individuals seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Painting them all with the same brush is unfair and dangerous.”

Uncontroversial claim (“motte”)
“It’s true that immigrants are the backbone of this country, so it’s crucial that we focus on improving vetting procedures to ensure that those who enter our country do so legally and without posing a threat to our communities.”

Once the controversy subsides, the anchor returns to promoting the original, more extreme position on immigration, which aligns with the audience’s views.

This example illustrates the motte and bailey fallacy by initially asserting an extreme claim about immigrants being criminals (the bailey), then retreating to a more moderate stance on immigration policy (the motte) when challenged. This tactic allows the host to shield the initial, extreme position from criticism, while still promoting it when the controversy subsides.

How does the motte and bailey fallacy work in an argument?

The motte and bailey fallacy presents a problem because it undermines clear and honest discourse in several ways:

  • Obfuscates the point of contention: Shifting between a highly defensible but often trivial position (the motte) and a more controversial claim (the bailey) makes it difficult to have a meaningful discussion and address an opponent’s actual stance.
  • Erodes credibility: Dodging criticism by retreating to a safer, more defensible position makes the speaker seem intellectually dishonest and untrustworthy.
  • Impedes progress: Shifting back-and-forth between the two positions can stall meaningful dialogue and prevent the exploration of nuanced perspectives.
  • Implies a lack of conviction: Relying on this fallacy can weaken a speaker’s overall argument, as it suggests a lack of confidence in the argument’s true, controversial conclusion.

How can you respond to the motte and bailey fallacy?

Responding to the motte and bailey fallacy involves recognizing the shift between a defensible but often trivial position (the motte) and a more controversial, expansive claim (the bailey). To react in a constructive way, consider the following strategies:

  • Explain the error: Point out when an opponent switches between a controversial claim and a more defensible position, and explain the precise difference between the two.
  • Focus on the original claim: Keep the conversation directed towards the more significant assertion, unless the opponent has explicitly withdrawn that claim.
  • Remain objective: Concentrate on clarifying the opponent’s true position rather than attributing motives.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.

Idioms

Parts of speech

Fallacies

Diamond in the rough

Irregular verb

Slippery slope fallacy

Idioms

Gerund

Sunk cost fallacy

Piece of cake

Infinitive phrase

Red herring fallacy

Better late than never

Infinitive

Appeal to authority fallacy

Salt of the earth

Adverb

Circular reasoning fallacy


What does the term motte and bailey mean?

The term “motte and bailey” originates from the fortifications of medieval castles. A motte (a raised mound) provided a strong, defensible position, while a bailey (an enclosed courtyard) offered more accessible but less defensible space.

The motte and bailey fallacy is named after this castle design because, like the tactic of switching between an easily defensible position (the motte) and a more vulnerable but easier to access position (the bailey), it involves switching between extreme and moderate positions in an argument.

What is the difference between the straw man fallacy and the motte and bailey fallacy?

The motte and bailey fallacy and the straw man fallacy both involve misrepresenting an argument, but the main difference lies in their tactics:

  • Motte and bailey fallacy: Modifying one’s own position to seem less extreme when challenged, then reverting to the original claim
  • Straw man fallacy: Attacking a distorted version of an opponent’s argumen

Can a motte and bailey argument be valid?

The motte and bailey fallacy can include coherent and logically sound points, but the strategy of shifting back and forth between two different claims is considered intellectually dishonest and makes an argument unsound overall. In other words, using this strategy is considered an informal logical fallacy.

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Magedah Shabo

Magedah is an author, editor, and educator who has empowered thousands of students to become better writers.

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